Monday, January 7, 2013

Similarities Between The Venda Python Dance & Black Sororities Probate Line Formations

Edited by Azizi Powell

Latest revision - December 17, 2020

This pancocojams post presents videos that suggest some similarities between the Venda (South African) female initiation dance known as the python dance and the very close contact processional formation used by some historically Black Greek lettered sororities' probate groups when those groups enter the performance area for their probate* show.

The content of this post is presented for folkloric, cultural, and aesthetic purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to Venda people of South Africa. Thanks to all the performers featured in these videos. Thanks also to the authors & commenters whose comments are featured in this post and thanks to the uploaders of the featured videos.
This same post was originally published at

Click the Venda Domba (python dance) tag  for other pancocojams posts of the subject of Venda Domba dance and click the fraternity and sorority probates tag for other pancocojams posts on the subject of historically Black Greek letter fraternities and sororities probates.

This pancocojams post is meant to point out the similarities in these historically Black Greek letter sorority vertical line formations, and not to assert that the Venda dance was the source for this type of probate processional formation. That said, I believe that it's quite possible that the South African Venda female initiation dance might have been the inspiration or one of the inspirations for this historically Black sorority vertical line formation.

Here's a definition of "probate" in the context of sororities & fraternities: A probate is a show that introduces new members of a sorority (or fraternity) to other members of their sorority (or fraternity), to other "Greeks", to family, friends, and to other onlookers. For historically Black sororities and fraternities, probate shows heavily involve the performance art of stepping. 

Traditionally, Black Greek lettered fraternities also appear to have a formation in which they stand close to the person in front of them and sing or chant. However, in the videos I've seen the men lock arms but don't rest their head on the back of the person standing in front of them, nor do they hold hands with the person in front of & behind them. Click "Zoom Zoom" (Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity) for an example of this type of close fraternity vertical line formation.

My guess is that the very close line formation symbolizes the group's unity. The ability to act as one body that is demonstrated by the group's synchronized movements may symbolizes the cohesiveness that was forged as a result of the individuals' experiences of becoming members of their group. Also, the group's moving forward with their eyes closed and/or with their heads resting on their sister's back and being led by one member may represents the group's trust in each other, and especially their trust in that lead sister. Furthermore, the group moving forward in spite of their tiredness highlights the importance of the goal and the value of perseverance to reach that goal..

It's possible that the Venda python dance also has those meanings in addition to the cultural meanings which were given in the above quote about that dance.

"The Venda (VhaVenda or Vhangona) are a Southern African Bantu people living mostly near the South African-Zimbabwean border.

Venda people share ancestry with Lobedu people and Kalanga people. They are also related to Sotho-Tswana and Shona groups."...

"Venda (/ˈvɛndə/) was a Bantustan in northern South Africa, which is fairly close to the South African border with Zimbabwe to the north, while to the south and east, it shared a long border with another black homeland, Gazankulu. It is now part of the Limpopo province [of the nation of South Africa]. Venda was founded as a homeland by the South African government for the Venda people, speakers of the Venda language.[4] The United Nations and international community refused to recognise Venda (or any other Bantustan) as an independent state."... 

I added the words in brackets to further explain the end of that sentence.

I'm not sure if there is a standard name or any name for the commonly performed historically Black (African American) sorority probate (new members) entrance march which is the focus of this post. However, that very close contact vertical line formation is very similar to that which is described for the Venda people's "python dance" at Domba initiation rituals.

Here is information about the symbolism of the Venda python dance (also known as the Venda "Domba" dance:

[Note: On December 17, 2020 I replaced the original excerpt that was included in this post for the excerpt given below.]
From 2008 pdf by Kent D. Fowler, University of Manitoba entitled "Social Memory and the Antiquity of Python and Crocodile Symbolism in Southern Africa"
Pythons, on the other hand, are directly associated with leadership in Shona, Venda and Zulu cultures. In Venda court art, python and crocodile imagery are paired, with crocodile images in the centre surrounded by those of pythons (Huffman 1996:89). In the Venda “python dance”, the same structure is found. Initiates dance in an undulating line emulating a python encircling a pool represented by the central court. In this context, the python is the “snake of the water”, a metaphor for female fertility. Pythons are also paired with the mountain imagery of chiefs and referred to as “snake of the mountain”. On some hilltops, it is believed that pythons guard the entrance of caves that contain pools that are portals to the world of ancestors (Huffman 1996:91). When linked to chieftainship and hilltops, pythons are the “snake of the mountain” and invoke linked metaphors for rainmaking, young and junior men, and male virility."...
Click for the pancocojams post entitled "
PDF Excerpt About The Symbolism Of Pythons And Crocodiles In Venda (South African) Culture". Additional statements about this subject are included in the comment section of that post. 

Also, click for the 2020 pancocojams post entitled "Contemporary Changes In Where and How The Venda (South African) Domba Dance (also known as the Python Dance) Is Performed".

Additional comments about the python dance that are performed at the Domba are found below the video that is given as "Video #1" in this post.

Two of the YouTube videos of that dance (given here as Videos #1 & #2) show the female in the front of the line with one or both of her hands held out to suggest a snake's head. The faces of the females in the line are expressionless and their eyes are closed. Each woman behind the woman at the head of the line lays her head on the back of the woman in front of them. The impression I got from the dance that the women were very tired and were slowly walking forward in their sleep. Occasionally, the right arms and then the left arms of the entire group rhythmically undulate in a synchronized manner as the group slowly proceeds across the floor.

Judging from YouTube videos of historically Black Greek lettered sororities that I have watched, the line formation described above but without the undulating arm movement, appears to be commonly used as the entrance procession for most Black Greek lettered sorority probates. 

I've not reviewed many videos of the five historically Black Greek lettered fraternities to determine if each of those organizations have a similar close contact formation for their probates or their other members. However, I came across this video of a similar formation by members of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc:". In this video the men stand very close together with locked arms and without moving away from their spot. The first man in line doesn't fold his hands in a triangle position, and the men after the first person in line don't lay their head on the person in front of them.

Pancocojams Editor's note [September 9, 2018]
A video that was previously given as Video #2 has been deleted because it is no longer available on YouTube.]

Video #1: Domba

bigbluemeanie, Uploaded on Nov 9, 2006

The famous Domba initiation dance of the Venda tribe of Southern Africa
Here are two comments from this video's viewer comment thread:
filato22, 2010

you can say that again its more zululized than venda. proudly venda
bigbluemeanie, 2012
..."Domba was the third and final phase in Venda girls' initiation, which should have been attended after a girl had been to vhusha and tshikanda. It took place every three to five years at the head-quarters of chiefs and certain senior headman, and lasted for about one year. Its importance to the Venda was marked by the use of the bass drum (ngoma), which was also used in tshikona, the Venda national dance. There were a number of special rites and shows associated with domba…

Video #2: Domba La Africa

dombalaafrica, Uploaded on Feb 26, 2010

Traditional Dance Group based in Soweto. Founded by the Late Co-founder of the Soweto Gospel Choir and Musical Director David Mulovhedzi
The Domba dance is performed in this video from .53 to 1:01 and the video ends with a still photograph of that dance.

Video #3: venda dance

nkosiafrika, Uploaded on May 13, 2010

great va venda mothers proudly dance @a wddng in soweto south africa


(These are selected videos of the four historically (predominately) Black [African American] Greek lettered sororities which are members of the are featured below in the order of their founding, with the oldest sorority presented first.)

Click for information about the National Pan-Hellenic Council (informally known as "the Divine Nine").

Example #1: Towson's Alpha Kappa Alpha Probate 2012

TowerlightVideo, Published on May 9, 2012 [Towson University, Baltimore, Maryland]
AKA, Alpha chapter probate 2010 at Howard University part 1
(.36 – 2.50) for another way that AKA probates proceed into the performance area. The women hold the hands of the person in front of them and behind them (down by their waist) with their heads held down.

Example #2: Delta Sigma Theta Lambda Psi 2010 Probate Part 1: Intro

emoang, Uploaded on Apr 11, 2010 [University of Florida]
According to several commenters on viewer thread, sorors in front in white are doing what is called a "duck walk"

Also, click (.23-.41) for another example of a Delta Sigma Theta, Inc probate formation that is similar to the South African Venda python dance.

Example #3: Zeta Phi Beta Pi Epsilon Chapter Fall 2012 Probate UTK PART 1

wally2774, Published on Oct 21, 2012

Zeta Phi Beta Pi Epsilon Chapter Fall 2012 Probate UTK [University of Tennessee, Knoxville]
Click for another example of this close contact vertical line procession from a Zeta Phi Beta chapter.

Example #4: SSU SGRho Probate 2K10

shannonkhoward54, Uploaded on Dec 14, 2010
Click for an example of a Sigma Gamma Rho vertical line procession in which the probates move in a style which is similar if not the same as a stroll (party walk). Besides the half mask that the probates wear, the only differences that I can see between this formation and a party walk is that the probates may be bent down lower then usual as they stroll, and the probates are holding the hand of the person in front & in back of them (arms distance). The first probate is led by another sorority member.

[Warning: The recorded music that the group is strolling to includes some mild profanity & the "n word".]

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  1. Here's a quote from an online "Greek" forum that further defines the word "probate" as it relates to sororities & fraternities:
    "Let me give a quick explanation. Just wanted to let you know about probates. I "crossed the burning sands" (another term that Greeks use sometimes in order to explain the final crossing or completion of the Membership Intake Process) in Spring of 2002. As it was explained to me, the purpose of the probate or "neophyte show" (neophyte meaning new member) is to come out to the Greek community at large and showing them that you are now officially a member of said sorority or fraternity. When I had my probate, I had been a member already for a month (we had to practice for the probate after induction) so I could have chosen NOT to have a probate and STILL would have been a member of my sorority, however, I chose to have one with my line sisters and it was quite successful!"
    PrettiPoodle402, (02-19-2003)
    By the way, that blogger's screen name identifies her as a member of Sigma Gamma Rho Sorority, Inc.

  2. Here's a link to an online article that provides some information about the three phases of initiation for Venda girls: vhusha, tshikanda and domba:

    This article is from the research of John Blacking who "lived amongst the Venda of the Sibasa district of the Northern Transvaal..." between May 1956 and December 1958.

    This additional page of that same article provides considerable descriptions of the Ndayo dance which was performed by two girls at a time:

    1. Unfortunately, these links are no longer viable as of Dec. 2020.